Monday, March 19, 2012

Bitless riding

The proof is in the pudding - it is not about the equipment (original article):

The Tunne Hevonen Dressage Challenge with bitless dressage competition exhibition held on Saturday 3 March 2012 at the second ever Helsinki Horse Fair in Finland was a huge success. The fair was attended by around 42,000 visitors and the exhibition was Saturday's main attracttion. The idea was to show that good riding is not based on equipment, but on good horse riding skills and good horsemanship.

Close to three thousand spectators attended the bitless competition class which was judged by Tiina Karkkolainen and Inkeri Kostiainen. International and national level riders took part in the show competition.

The winner was Julia Alfthan-Kilpeläinen and her 17-year old Swedish warmblood gelding Chirocco (by Chirlon x Castello). Maria-Kristina Virta and her 20-year old Finnish warmblood gelding Conquistador S (by Matador) were second.

Janne Bergh and her halfblood mare Show Me Colour N and Taina Rajala with her Finnish bred stallion Kiahan Renard tied for third place. Katariina Albrecht and her black Finnish mare Silkki Musta were fourth and Heidi Sinda with her Finnish bred gelding Hessin Jeviiri slotted in fifth.

To Bit or Not to Bit

All riders shared the same view on bitless riding. If a horse is tense, it will be tense with a bit too. Many of them commented that if they had had more time to practice, they would have reached the same results with the bitless bridle as with a bit.

Julia Alfthan-Kilpelainen on Chirocco

Julia Alfthan-Kilpeläinen rode twice with the LG-bridle before the competition and she thought that with practice, collecting would come faster and easier. “I wanted to challenge myself and my old familiar horse to the new situation and it went exactly as I wanted it to. Bits in themselves are not the main aid between the horse and the rider, all the other aids are. I had so much fun,” said Dressage Challenge winner Julia Alfthan-Kilpeläinen, adding that, "I would do it again, of course."

Maria-Kristiina Virta who came in second place told us that she had so much fun and enjoyed the fact that her experienced horse wanted to perform. Third placed Janne Bergh had a young, inexperienced horse, which as she said, would have been just as tense with a bit in her mouth. "However, I had fun," she stated.

Taina Rajala also said she enjoyed the competition and praised the atmosphere. "It was really fun to perfom for such a big audience. My horse was really happy and wasn’t tense at all. With more training I think I could get a better feel and I would ride at the same level as with a bit. A good competition with a good atmosphere!

Janna Bergh on Show Me Colour

Finnhorse riders Katariina Albrecht and Heidi Sinda also said that it was great to ride in front of a big audience. Katariina stated that riding with a bitless bridle is a question of training and she feels that you can achieve the same results without a bit as with one. She is ready to do it again, anytime. Heidi Sinda had a young horse too and she said that she was surprised that her horse moved with better back movement and used his hindquarters much better with the LG-bridle. “Great event, big audience and good arrangements, Heidi Sinda concluded.

This is not to negate the positive effects of certain pieces of equipment over others of course - when we do use equipment what we use matters, but it lends credit to the theory that horses may be ridden bitless - and in my opinion even bridleless - with the same results. The correct use of and the type of equipment we use matters however it can also be done without equipment.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New AQHA rules addressing gadgets

Recently, Horse Nation posted the following article:

Proposed changes mean only arena-legal equipment can be used on AQHA showgrounds

The recently formed Animal Welfare Commission (AWC) in the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) has proposed a new rule that will allow only arena-legal equipment to be used on the show grounds. This means that training aids like martingales, draw reins, certain bits, etcetera cannot be used in warm-up, practice, or lunging. This controversial proposal has trainers, owners and competitors stirred up on both sides of the fence.

In recent years, AQHA has been passing new regulations to ensure the safety of show horses, like the Steward Program. This program places stewards at shows who address abuse and illegal use of equipment on a case by case basis. However, the new proposed equipment rule has some trainers thinking the regulations have gone too far and could lead to a snowball effect of banning all types of equipment.

This topic is so controversial because it significantly impacts how these horses are prepared for the show pen. When trainers bring young horses to shows, they often use certain training aids in order to navigate the crowded and scary warm-up pens. If this law was passed, it could mean unsafe conditions for riders who are exposed to or riding these young horses. In addition, novice riders use these types of equipment to build up their confidence before entering the show pen.

AQHA and the AWC are working to be more proactive in the protection against inhumane treatment of quarter horses as the association often receives pressure from outside organizations about the treatment of show horses. It should be noted that any recommendations by the AWC go straight to vote by the Executive Committee rather than the normal procedure of receiving committee recommendation first. The AWC submitted two rule changes to the Show and Professional Horsemen Committee that will be voted on at the AQHA Convention in March. The proposed changes can be seen below:

Agenda item #4 – Add new rule – A horse may not be ridden, driven, or led, nor exercised anywhere on the show grounds with prohibited equipment. The use of prohibited equipment shall disqualify the horse from that show and may result in disciplinary action taken against the rider, handler, agent or owner.

1.) For lungeing a horse a lunge-line and a long whip is allowed.

2.) Senior horses can be exercised with equipment allowed for junior horses

Agenda item #8–Add to Western Equipment rule 443–Ban the use of draw reins used with a curb bit while on the grounds at any AQHA event.

First, take a look at the comments section for some perspective and some very valid points.

This rule change could certainly adversely affect trainers and riders who travel from show to show and have no other opportunity to school their horses except on show grounds. Not to mention the shows that can last up to several weeks, from what I understand (I have never shown AQHA). In such a case, the rider or trainer is then forced to school their horse in arena-legal equipment only with absolutely no opportunity for a tune-up using schooling equipment. This might be a good thing in that it forces trainers and riders to school their horses in a more correct manner and the rule itself limits the extent of abuse a rider may inflict on a horse, however is it crossing the line to restrict riders and trainers to working with their horse in such a manner? How do these riders and trainers cope without knowledge of any other manner of training, having relied upon gadgets to school their horses? Should riders be forced to only school their horses in one particular manner?

What this rule change does is not only weed out the riders using gadgets in an abusive manner, but it also greatly limits the riders using gadgets in a non-abusive manner, which is a bit of a grey area.

This rule change may force riders to find training alternatives that do not rely on the use of gadgets. Let's face it - maybe some of these riders are using draw reins and martingales in a traditionally acceptable manner ie, as a training tool used in moderation, but most are not. Most if not all are using such devices to create a 'frame' - ie, to bring the horse's head down. Correct use of a martingale or draw reins would be, for example, to encourage the horse to relax and drop his poll a little and keep him from inverting - in extreme cases whereby the horse is severely inverted and trying to evade the bit (and has the improper muscling to support this inverted frame as opposed to an alternative and more correct manner of moving). This would be done while simultaneously developing the horse from other angles ie, teaching him to relax in general, developing strength and balance in the horse, and teaching the horse to increasingly engage from behind. It is interesting to note that most if not all the 'masters' of classical horsemanship advocate against the use of gadgets such as draw reins and martingales (and even side reins, etc - anything fixed).

It is important to strengthen the horse and to teach him to balance and use himself correctly under the weight of a rider. Using himself correctly means he is lifting at the base of his neck (important!!!) and opening his throatlatch so he is in front of the vertical and his poll naturally hanging. The horse loads the haunches to land on a bent hock, the back is loose, swinging, and rounded, and the front end is lightened - the horse actually looks to be moving uphill. As a result of the biomechanics of the horse, all this means his head naturally drops. This differs from a horse in the frame demanded of western pleasure (etc) classes. The preceding creates a stronger, more athletic horse with pure gaits. The latter creates a horse subject to breaking down and unsoundness due to the stress placed on his ligaments, tendons and muscles to maintain a false and difficult to maintain frame. The latter also creates impure gaits. Like the 4-beat canter.

A typical western pleasure jog

A typical western pleasure... lope?

Note in the above photo the horse actually appears to be moving downward - this is because his weight is shifted onto the forehand as opposed to his haunches engaging, taking the weight, and lifting the forehand up. His haunches are actually strung out behind him and he is croup-high because his pelvis is not tilted so his hind legs can reach further beneath him. A horse moving in this position has to tense his back to hold the weight of his rider and this tension in the back, which of course is reflected throughout the horse's entire body, is what leads to unsoundness and break-down.

In short, gadgets such as martingales and draw reins should be used only in the most extreme of situations, in moderation - if at all. They are not go-to teaching tools for establishing a correct way of moving because they are fixed and they neglect the ultimate and correct manner of asking the horse to move which focuses on the haunches and results (among other things) in the poll dropping. Gadgets may aid in teaching the horse to lower the head (only), however they do not teach the horse to lift at the base of the neck and in fact they can aid the horse in building incorrect (and bracing) muscles that are actually counter-productive to his moving correctly.

So why do these trainers and riders NEED draw reins and martingales (etc) to 'tune-up' their horses prior to and at shows? A horse asked to carry himself in a correct manner should easily sustain this correct manner of moving and only further progress with schooling. This is because moving in such a manner - strengthened and in balance, is natural for the horse. A horse however asked to sustain a false frame will always have to be reminded to sustain such a frame because it is both difficult and unnatural to the horse. Is this right? Should these riders be permitted to use such gadgets when they are so obviously being used in an incorrect manner? Is this an area the AQHA should regulate?

Furthermore, what actually defines abuse? Is it the riders brutally yanking and jabbing at their horses in an obviously abusive manner? Or is it the ones who are using draw reins and restrictive martingales to tie the horse's head down, then using a curb bit not for refinement but to force the horse to lower his head, then quietly spurring the horse forward in this frame? I've seen these horses locally and though the riders' techniques are typical and accepted, does it not still constitute abuse when the horse is so distressed? Where is the line?

Lastly, I take issue with the following:
When trainers bring young horses to shows, they often use certain training aids in order to navigate the crowded and scary warm-up pens. If this law was passed, it could mean unsafe conditions for riders who are exposed to or riding these young horses. In addition, novice riders use these types of equipment to build up their confidence before entering the show pen.

Please tell me you are joking. Unsafe conditions for riders who are exposed to or riding these young horses?? SINCE WHEN ARE DRAW REINS AND MARTINGALES (etc) MEANT FOR CONTROL?? I HOPE the above comment comes from someone not familiar with AQHA showing and that the comment does not reflect typical thinking in the AQHA arena. Novice riders should NEVER be using these types of equipment to build their confidence (or for ANYTHING) and neither should these types of equipment be used on young horses to CONTROL them. IF these pieces of equipment are used at all, they should be used at home, to prepare (cringe) the horse. The horse should come to the show arena-ready, not out of control and requiring such extensive schooling that he requires such aids.

*phew. end rant*

Photo credit to Braymere.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Centering Your Horse

The following is an article from Buck Brannaman 'Centering Your Horse':

Article here

It is a very good article that articulately explains what I mean when I have said the rider needs to "tunnel the horse" with their aids. For your reading pleasure, I have also copied and pasted below:

What I am looking for when I am riding a horse of any level, a green colt or an experienced bridle horse, is for him to stay centered underneath me. When I'm riding, I draw an imaginary rectangle around my horse; there is a line in front of his nose, one on each side of him, and one behind his tail.

On a green horse the sides of this rectangle might be five feet out from his sides and on both ends. On a bridle horse the lines might be right at the tip of his nose, inches off my stirrups and right behind his hindquarters. One of the things I am trying to accomplish during my ride is to have my horse in the exact center of the rectangle.

Being able to operate all four quarters of my horse, picking up a soft feel, leg yielding; all these things give me the ability to make adjustments when my horse leans on any side of the rectangle so that I can bring him back to center again.

Centering the Young Horse
On a colt, especially, he will be centered for only moments at a time. I might be really busy fixing things up and getting things lined out on a colt, but I make sure that when he does find that spot, I become as peaceful as I possibly can. My horse can feel that, and at first it might not have much meaning, but since my being peaceful feels very good to him he will start to add up what he needs to do for me to be quiet and he will start hunting for the center of the rectangle.

Your horse really wants to be at peace with you on his back, but if you don't ever show him where he needs to be, you will just be bouncing all over the place. He won't ever find how to be between your legs and reins.

I got to track a few head of cattle on one of my colts last week, and even when I am galloping around tracking a cow, I am aware of where my horse is within my rectangle. If he's pushing through my hand, he's advancing toward that line in front of him, so I might slow him down and get him to rate. If I'm working my feet on a loose rein and he doesn't respond to my leg, that means he's getting close to that line behind him and I need to do more to get him to move up. If he falls left or right with both ends, I will use a leg yield to bring him back to being straight. If he moves diagonally toward a corner of his body or if his front or hindquarters drift, I can use my reins and legs with my ability to move all four quarters to bring him back to the center.

When my horse gets to the center, I will ease off for as long as he is there. It might not be long before I'm fixing again, but I try to do it in a way that I'm not picking at him. I'm just aware of where he is and I try to direct him to where he needs to be. Your rectangle always goes with you, so it doesn't matter if you are going in a circle, there is still a center.

Bringing in Your Lines
As my horse starts to become more advanced, I start bringing my imaginary lines closer and closer to his body. I will expect him to drift away from the center less and less, but the key to getting him more dependable is good timing. If you have sorry timing, and your horse drifts over your imaginary lines and you don't even notice until you are on the other side of the arena, then it's too late. You've lost the opportunity.

You need to keep this idea of where the center is on your horse the whole time you are riding. Be aware of his whole body. This is what I'm thinking about while I'm riding, and I am never not thinking about it.

You also need to be careful in how you approach bringing him back to center. If you correct too much, or don't release soon enough, you'll blow right past the center and go right over the line on the other side. There is a certain amount of drift associated with that timing, so you will stop your correction before he gets to the center so that he'll end up in the right spot. If you overdo all your corrections, you will just have him ricocheting off these lines and then you will have a really confused horse.

Buck BrannamanBuck Brannaman

Tuba is a Thoroughbred horse that I started for Lee and Melanie Taylor. He was difficult in that he was super- athletic, but he kept me really busy all the time keeping him centered. I did not jump him at all until I went back to do a clinic in Memphis. By my sixth jumping lesson with Melanie, we were jumping 4' oxers with a 6' spread because he was centered before I asked him to jump. It was so fun because he was broke enough that I could point him at the jump and there was no question of him leaving; he was right there. I had taken the time to get him sensible. I had done clinics on him, roped and branded on him and spent the time to get him ready.

Oppressive Riders
On my horses I am continually fixing and releasing. You can't hold them in the center. I have been teaching clinics for 20 years, so my observations are based on fact; the least centered horses that I come into contact with are dressage horses. (Now don't think for a minute that I am bad-mouthing dressage, because when it is done correctly by a good hand, it's beautiful, it doesn't get any better.) I am talking about the rider who does not let their horse find center and choose to be there; I am talking about the one who overconfines the horse and tries to hold him in the right spot. Their horses blow right through the front line, and if it's an oppressive enough rider, they go right through the line in back and get their horse dull to the leg. It can happen with any horse in any type of gear with an oppressive rider.

Where riders get into trouble is that they don't give their horse enough room to find the center. They are going to make him do it, by being oppressive in the way that they ride. They think they can force the horse to the center and then hold him there. But the horse has to hunt it, you can't make him be there. It doesn't matter how you dress a horse up, it's all the same. Getting a horse organized and on the spot is the same no matter what you are doing.

Always Hope
Sometimes people will ask me about their horse and ask me what I would do if he were mine. I tell them that I would ride their horse like he was my horse until he looked like my horse. I don't do anything different. If you have an older horse that has some kindergarten stuff missing, go back and get it right. Age is irrelevant. It might take him longer to learn because he has some other things in his past to overcome, but he will change a lot quicker than most people can.

Once you have seen quality horsemanship and are exposed to the things you can do to help a horse be gentle and dependable, then why wouldn't you do those things? No matter what your horse's age, you are going to try to offer him the best that you can. If you adjust what you are doing, he will adjust too; horses have an amazing capacity to make changes. There is always hope.

This article originally appeared in EH#7Eclectic Horseman Issue #7

I really have very little to add, Brannaman said it best! Keeping your horse in his rectangle ensures he is straight
and that he is neither behind the leg nor too far in front of your leg. There are times we want a horse to almost push against the front of their rectangle, to push against our hand, to pull us to the base of a fence, for example, however this is done in moderation. This is not to be confused with a horse on the forehand, however, or a horse who is too far in front of the leg. Developing your horse to the point where his rectangle is small and he rarely moves outside it means he is on the aids and is obedient - you have ultimate control. This should apply to EVERY rider in ANY discipline.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The warm-up

A good warm-up is key to a good ride and it is imperative to the health of your horse - both physically and mentally. Ultimately, the way to develop a good warm-up is to listen to your horse. Try different methods and find what works best for your horse. The primary goal of the warm-up is to loosen the horse up - to create flexibility, softness, and relaxation in the horse and to warm up his muscles. This reduces the chance of strain and stress on the horse's soft tissues in particular, that may lead to either acute or chronic injury.

While there is room for flexibility in a horse's warm-up routine, an absolute must for both the warm-up and cool-down is 10min of walk. Sound boring? Turn on the radio or listen to music on an ipod. Take this opportunity to stretch and warm up yourself while on the back of your horse (some rider stretching exercises were provided on the website linked in my last blog). Here are some exercises you can do before you throw your leg over your horse. The walk should be done on a loose rein whereby you allow your horse to stretch out and warm up his muscles without any demands.

After walking for an equal amount of time in both directions, you can pick up the trot. At this point the trot might still be stiff and your horse will likely be lazy, he won't be using himself properly. He should not be expected to. Same as with anything 'horse', all is initiated by the horse and is done on the horse's timeline. This is his chance to do his best impression of a giraffe and to trot around with his head and neck wherever the heck he wants to put them and his hind legs trailing several kilometers behind him. Stay off his back during this time ie, post your trot. Let him trot along the rail on a loose rein for a good 5min minimum before starting to ask for large patterns - ie, figure-8's that take up the length of the entire arena, etc. As you feel your horse start to warm up and soften, you can start to ask for smaller patterns. Smaller figure-8's, circles, serpentines, etc. These are more demanding exercises by virtue of their size so they should only be asked of the horse as the horse tells you he can do them, as his muscles become sufficiently warm to tackle increased engagement and greater demand. You should feel him soften, relax, become more flexible, and start to naturally engage from behind. At this point you have probably taken 20-25min to warm your horse up - he should feel pretty good beneath you.

One exercise my instructor recently showed me that I wanted to share was one that stretches out a horse's shoulders. Some horses in particular hold a lot of tension in their shoulders, but this exercise can benefit any horse. Essentially the exercise is a figure-8 smooshed up against the arena fence or wall:
(hey, I never claimed to be proficient at Paint!)

Two oval loops flattened against the wall, with a change of direction between them. Ask your horse to maintain balance and to not drop his shoulders in the corners. He should also maintain gait and pace within that gait. As for pattern size, the smooshed-figure-8 can be as large or as small as your horse is capable. If he is unbalanced and struggles with the indicated smaller size, increase the size of the loops (ie, the broken line in the image above). Only ask this of your horse after he's been trotting his warm-up a minimum of 5min and once he is comfortable with smaller patterns.

Where you take the remaining 5-15min of your warm-up should depend specifically on your horse's needs. With some horses you might want to start at this point including exercises such as lateral work and transitions. I find leg yields and shoulder-ins to be particularly beneficial in suppling some horses. I often ask a horse to alternate bends down the centerline to supple their neck and barrel somewhat. Jane Savoie has an excellent poll suppling exercise she explains here:

And here:

You might also want to add some gallop or canter in your horse's warm-up routine. A good gallop really allows a horse to stretch out and can be greatly beneficial to any horse. In fact, allowing your horse to open up in a good gallop as a regular part of your weekly routine has a lot of both mental and physical benefits to your horse.

A proper warm-up should take a rider 25-35min minimum, longer if the horse is older or if the weather is particularly cold. Your cool-down should be similar and should serve to really stretch and supple your horse in addition to progressively cooling him down and allowing his breathing to slow. Halting and putting your horse up after a work-out while his muscles are still warm may cause his muscles to stiffen and seize, which is of course of detriment to your horse.

Your horse is an athlete as any other - make sure you condition and treat him like one!

Monday, March 5, 2012

At the girth

The rider's position plays an important role in achieving desired results from a horse. If we are not in the proper position, we can hardly expect the horse to read our minds and respond as we desire - they are instead to respond appropriate to the aids we have given them. I think many riders are potentially mistaken in their interpretation of the term "at the girth". Since many of my blogs refer to a rider's leg being "at the girth" or "a tad behind the girth" or such, I felt it prudent to clarify exactly what this term meant.

This is what "on the girth" looks like:

When the rider's leg is at the girth, this is NOT meant to imply that the rider's leg is actually ON the actual girth strap. The correct position of the rider's leg is so the heel is in a straight line with the rider's hip, shoulder, and ear. THIS is "at the girth". Any instructor or rider who tells you otherwise is incorrect. We might slide our leg back only slightly (ie, 1-2 inches) from this position or even forward (ie, half an inch) to specifically cue the horse's shoulders or haunches or to deliver a stronger aid (ie, forward), but the rider's leg should always return to this neutral position. The way a rider can imagine this position from atop their horse: imagine your horse were to disappear right out from under you. Your position atop your horse should reflect being able to land on your feet with your knee bent under you and your heel in line with your hip, shoulder, and ear. If you are not in this position, you need to reposition yourself and consider what could be altering your position from chiropractic misalignment to your saddle.

While we're at it, notice the second pink line in the above photo? This is the position your arms should be in. I obtained the above photo from this website, which has a ton of fantastic information on it as it pertains to your position and how to improve it. Some of the exercises provided are ones my instructor has me perform - they really help. Any rider who considers themselves an athlete (and every rider is) should be stretching appropriately so as to maintain the proper position on their horse and so as to prevent possible injury.

Here is another very informative photo that demonstrates the rider's (correct) position in context of the rider applying the 'circle of aids' and causing the energy of the horse to flow freely beneath him:

The grey arrows refer to the cycle of energy allowed and guided by the circle of aids. The rider's hands must be soft but firm, his elbows must be elastic and his shoulders relaxed. The rider's hands and upper body MUST be independent of the lower body. This requires strength (especially core strength) and balance and a correct position that places the rider in balance and with his gravity centered. This is the best position from which to influence the horse and also to allow the horse to move in a beneficial manner.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The rein back

The rein back, same as with any maneuver or exercise, is very beneficial to riders in disciplines other than dressage though it is a required dressage maneuver. As always however, it is not about the actual maneuver or exercise in itself but rather about the way(s) that exercise can benefit the horse's training in general. The rein back is a helpful exercise that helps to engage the horse's hindquarters and can help further develop responsiveness to the aids and thus control.

Anna says it best!

The cues:
1 - imperceptibly lighten your seat so as to encourage the horse to move backward by freeing his back
2 - close your hands to inhibit forward movement
3 - gently apply leg slightly behind the girth

The hands guide the horse's 'forward' movement in a backward manner solely by closing and the rider's legs generate the actual 'forward' momentum and the steps. You can close your hand around each rein with the stepping of the corresponding hind foot. Your legs however should remain steady and consistent in their pressure.

Having a helper on the ground might definitely aid in teaching the rein back however this is not possible for all riders. Be very patient with your horse and quiet in your aids when teaching this maneuver so as not to create tension and resistance in your horse.